Baylor College of Medicine

Photo of an elderly person's hands.

Assisting the elderly throughout COVID-19

Homa Shalchi


Houston, TX -

People all around the world are encouraged to stay home to contain the spread of coronavirus, and experts have especially urged older adults, who are at a higher risk of complications from the virus, to stay inside to protect themselves. Dr. Angela Catic, assistant professor in the Huffington Center on Aging at Baylor College of Medicine, provides insight on how to help older adults in the community during the global pandemic.

Stay connected

Not all elders will be willing to connect digitally, as it may be a major challenge for them. Some may not have the proper equipment, while others may have hearing and visual difficulties or cognitive impairments. Technology is not a necessity if it will add more stress to an already stressful time. Instead, call your loved ones on the phone or send letters and postcards. Children can send drawings to their grandparents as well. Others may visit their elderly loved ones by waving and speaking through the window.

If the older adult wants to use technology, give simple explanations to help them log in. Something like FaceTime on a smartphone, if they have one, may be easier to explain since it has less steps than Zoom or other video conference services on the computer.

Help with groceries and errands

Family members can offer to run errands or get groceries. If this is not an option, neighbors and peers in the area can drop off groceries to their elderly neighbors. Many community and faith-based organizations also are offering food delivery so people do not need to leave the house. If they have difficulty doing this on the computer, stores may allow them to call to place grocery orders over the phone and can provide more information on senior hours.

“If there are alternatives to going to the stores, like neighbors, family or delivery, I would encourage them to do that to further minimize their exposure to others during this time,” Catic said.

If older adults chose to go out in to the community, it is important for them to take precautions to minimize their infection risks. All individuals should wear multi-layer cloth face masks in public in addition to maintaining physical distancing. Masks can be made from common household items and can be sewn or folded for effect. To safely remove a mask, be careful to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and wash your hand immediately.

As the community continues to reopen, new concerns will arise regarding shopping, eating out, and attending social events. It will continue to be important for older adults to continue physical distancing. If they do decide to go out shopping, curbside pick-up continues to be encouraged. At this time, older adults should continue to avoid restaurants and other public areas where physical distancing is not possible. Food can be delivered or picked-up to enjoy at home. Religious services and many cultural events can be attended virtually. As parks reopen, older adults should feel free to get out to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine as long as they are staying at least six feet from others and using a face covering.

Manage Anxiety

Worry and stress are common responses in everyone. Even in older adults with cognitive impairments who may not be able to verbalize their concern, there are behaviors that can indicate a high level of anxiety: increased restlessness, inability to sit still, asking the same question repeatedly or asking a lot of “what if” questions.

“We can all reduce stress by being prepared, cautious and limiting misinformation or over-information. Don’t sit with the news on all day long. That can be a great cause of anxiety because the news tends to focus heavily on threats to our health and safety,” Catic said. “Understanding and addressing the underlying worry of an older adult around coronavirus can be a very successful strategy to mitigate anxiety. Focusing on what the individual can do and control is another proven success strategy. Feeling useful and productive is another strategy to focus on what you can do.”

Empower older adults to stay home

Explain that the best way to prevent significant spread of the virus is by keeping distance from one another. Empower them to feel that this is a step they can take to safeguard their own health and that of those they love. Educate them and explain that this is a new virus, so no one is immune, and we are lacking a vaccine. Make them feel empowered by explaining that they are helping the community by staying inside.

“Staying home is not inaction, it’s action,” Catic said. “Discourage them from going out if they can stay home.”

Try not to use the phrase social distancing. Instead, say ‘physically distant, socially connected.’ Many older adults are feeling isolated, but if they are distancing at home, they can still connect through the phone, letters and postcards.

Set a routine

Catic encourages people of all ages to follow a routine and think of ways to engage mentally and physically. Exercise at home with walks around the house and gentle stretching. Museums, libraries and other institutions across the world have opened up virtual exhibits to experience at home.

If older adults have regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments, contact the doctor’s office ahead of the visit. Many doctors are converting to telephonic and video visits to protect patients from increasing their risk of exposure for non-urgent issues. 

“We don’t want older adults to feel abandoned. Their doctors are available to care for them while taking steps to reduce potential exposure to the virus,” Catic said.

To make a video or telephone visit more productive, older adults are encouraged to have a caregiver present for the call to write down recommendations and to be sure all is understood correctly. Prepare for the visit by collecting home health visit records, glucose readings, pill bottles or a list of questions for the doctor. Older adults are also encouraged to ask for prescriptions refills proactively, keeping more than 1 month of refills on hand when possible.

Multigenerational households

Some people live in multigenerational households, which makes distancing difficult. All family members should minimize social contact. This is important for everyone in the home, not just older adults. Catic offers tips for family members to protect their loved ones in the house.

  • It is important for everyone in the family to be diligent about practicing infection prevention measure, including washing hands frequently with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds and disinfecting high-touch surfaces several times per day.
  • As there is evidence that asymptomatic individuals can spread the virus, members of the household could consider wearing cloth face masks in the home to reduce this risk.
  • Multigenerational families could consider physically distancing at home, staying six feet away from older adults. This may be especially relevant in young children who may not be able to be as vigilant about infection prevention measure.

“While multigenerational households may present some additional challenges given that older adults are high-risk for coronavirus, there is the benefit of families being able to assist one another during this challenging time,” Catic said.

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